Body modification is a broad category that includes piercing tattooing, branding, cutting, binding and inserting implants. All of these involve altering the body on the outside in a way that has an immediate effect. However, body modification can also be seen to include “Gymnastics, bodybuilding, anorexia and fasting -forms in which the body surface is not directly inscribed and altered using instruments to cut, pierce and bind” Featherstone (, 1999) These types of body modification alter the outside of the body through exercise and diet and are a much slower process.
This essay will look at the types of body modification in more detail and then at how feminism and postmodern theory can be used to explain this occurrence. Body modification can be taken to mean anything that changes our body. For example, if we look at pacemakers or spectacles, they are both used to modify our bodies, and both are an addition to our bodies. If we go even further, we can look at modern films and TV programmes that show ‘super-humans.’ This type of character usually has many modifications, such as machines grafted onto their skins-so that they are cyborgs. Cyborgs such as Robocop are well known to the public, and there is a fascination with the idea of man and machine becoming a joint entity; doing this would be yet another improvement to our own nature.
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Our culture shows the need for continuous improvement in our bodies. We are often either trying to improve our bodies to the point of perfection, or we are trying to move away from our socialized culture. This can be seen with those who diet and body build trying to gain perfection, which the mass media have defined. Others are trying to reject the ‘norm’ and become more individual. They do this by getting piercings or tattoos. “I make a statement; I’ve chosen myself. I am part of a culture, but I don’t believe in it. My body modifications are my way to say that.” Klesse (1999)
This statement would be associated with types of body modification such as piercing and tattooing. But these types are no longer necessarily a statement of individuality in today’s youth culture. Most young adults now will either have a tattoo or a piercing or will know someone that does. These forms of individuality are now fashion statements that are seen as part of western culture. The mass media has made fashion a great influence on how our bodies should look. There are hundreds of different magazines that shout from the front page about how we are meant to look. The body type that women are meant to have, according to these magazines, is skinny, toned and tanned. This ideal for most women is impossible to achieve without dieting and exercise, or bodybuilding.
According to Bourdieu, it is better to consider ‘a universe of class bodies’ rather than the singular type of body form. Featherstone (1999). Body modification can be looked at as a post-modern phenomenon. Tattooing has been around for many centuries. We can see this from older cultures, such as in the Middle East and Egypt. These tattoos were often compulsory as they showed an unambiguous meaning in these pre-literate societies (Turner, 1999). In early-industrialized Western societies, tattoos were associated with working classes and criminals. If you had one, you were more than likely going to belong to one of these groups. In post-modern society, they are aesthetic enhancements of the body (Turner, 1999).
“However, the need to imitate the body markings of other and earlier cultures in contemporary primitivism can be taken as further evidence in post-modern cultures of what we might fruitfully term the exhaustion of idiom. Because a culture of simulation does not easily produce, permit or accept ‘authenticity,’ popular idioms are necessarily clichï¿½s.” (Turner 1999) The popular tattoos now are imitations of older, more established cultures such as Maori or Japanese signs. These are often used because of the globalization of consumerism. They are neo-tribal. (Turner 1999) These playful and pretty tattoos have eroded the need for serious tattoos that show a real meaning.
“Tattoos and body piercing are no longer functional but indicate the social construction of traditional patterns of sociability in the modern world. Tattoos operate in a field of Dionysian desire and consumer pleasure. Still, consumerism has not produced its own (authentic) mythology or consumer theology, and therefore tattoos have no cosmic foundation from which meaning could be derived. Hence they are often parasitic upon the Other and the primitive; they consciously simulate primitive images of sexuality.” (Maffesoli 1996). Turner (1999) has developed a way of describing tribalism. His idea is that traditional tribalism is thick and hot, whereas today, it is cool and thin in post-modern society.
Thick and thin describe solidarity, and cool and hot describe loyalty. In traditional tribalism, membership was required and a tattoo obligatory, whereas in today’s neo-tribalism, membership is voluntary and therefore marking is optional. Turner uses the metaphor of a departure lounge to show how body modification works in a post-modern society. “We could argue that post-modern society resembles an airport departure lounge where membership is optional (thin/cool) as passengers wait patiently for the next action to unfold through the exit doorway. We are all flï¿½neurs when we survey others’ bodies for playful marks as we consume the surface of other bodies. Gazing at the lifestyles of other passengers becomes a pleasurable pastime, suitable to fill the time before departure.”
This shows how we are not committed to our body modification and can change them when we feel like it. For instance, if we get a tattoo, we can relatively easily have it removed, or with a body piercing we can simply remove it, and then we are no longer making a statement about ourselves. Our loyalties are easily transferable, unlike those of primitive tribal groups. Post-modern society sees these markings as part of man’s individualization as it no longer signifies being part of a group. They are just another part of consumer culture (Turner, 1999). However, it can also be said that because of the pain involved with tattooing and piercing, there may be some deeper meaning to it.
Otherwise, everyone would get clip-on piercings or transfers instead of tattoos. (Sweetman 1999) Therefore this type of body modification could always be associated with how they get their tattoo or piercing rather than what it looks like. The symbolism in tattoos is more of a fashion than of any real meaning. “Contemporary body modification continues to signify at the denotative level, even if its connotative message is increasingly ambiguous.” (Sweetman 1999) Body modification of the 1960s and ’70s was associated with shaving your head so that you could be part of a recognizable group (skinheads). Whereas now there isn’t one specific group of society that gets tattooed or pierced, it could be seen as a sign of everyone’s growing individuality or their growing insecurities.
Body modification in this sense can be seen as a way of anchoring us to ourselves and giving us a permanent identity. Klease disagrees with this statement that not everyone has the ability to construct their own identity. Klesse believes that we are too quick to say that modernity is about fashion. Klesse calls this modern primitivism and is very critical of it. He believes that the mixing of cultures has been overlooked. The mixing of cultures could have influenced the upsurge in tattoos and piercings instead of being seen as a neo-tribal part of identity. Klesse also argues that we need to give up the complete separation of modernity and primitivism. One is associated with the west, and the other is associated with the non-west (Klesse 1999).
Post-modern culture sees body modification as a fashion accessory without much meaning to it. Ancient tribal designs mainly influence the artwork, and there is nothing authentic about it, which is typical of a post-modern society. Nevertheless, body modification and feminism can be linked, especially in the past 20 years. In the area of feminism, the main influences at the moment are post-structuralism and post-modern feminism. One of the main debates in feminism is the equality versus difference argument. The equality argument states that as rational beings, women are essentially the same as men and therefore are concerned with reworking what they see as ill-conceived theories and representations of women. From this perspective, women are seen as capable of doing what men do, as capable of being ‘men’ and are expected to enter into the world of men.
In the difference argument, the emphasis is on the difference between men and women; this is usually associated with radical feminism. These feminists celebrate women’s social and cultural differences and often have a political point of view. This argument seeks to re-conceive the relationship between men and women as ‘different but complementary.’ This means they have to evaluate the difference and dismantle the hierarchy that underlies men and women in western society. Radical feminists also celebrate sexual differences, leading to some feminists believing that women are ethically better than men—again, this is a reversal of the traditional gender hierarchy of Western societies.
Another strand of feminism that is associated with the difference argument is part of poststructuralism/postmodernism. These feminists are not as gynocentric as radical feminists. They believe that there is a difference between men and women but not in the celebratory way that the radicalizes believe. This argument is much more critical of the differences and tries to reflect on how these differences are constructed and maintained. It focuses more on social differences rather than sex differences. Body modifications such as plastic surgery and dieting, and exercise are, for the most part, are usually associated with women. However, there is evidence that men seek to ‘improve’ their bodies and that the numbers are growing rapidly (Davis, 2002). The media portrays this trend as much larger than it actually is.
“The media in the US and Europe abound with stories of how men, like women, suffer doubts about their appearance, agonize over their baldness, worry about their ‘beer bellies’ and underdeveloped pecs, bemoan their sagging eyelids and worry lines, and dissolve into a panic about the size of their penis (this is now called the ‘locker-room syndrome’). Reports indicate that men are currently spending billions of dollars on beauty products, gym memberships and exercise equipment, hair-colour treatments and transplants, and, of course, cosmetic surgery. Once regarded as a practice reserved almost exclusively for women, cosmetic surgery has become acceptable for men. According to a 1996 survey in the UK, 13 percent of British men admitted that they ‘expected to have aesthetic surgery at some point'” (Davis, 2002)
This could lead us to believe that the gender gap is closing. And that we are moving towards sexual and social equality. The upsurge of cosmetic surgery in men could be put down to the media and consumerism in the capitalist Western world. It could be seen as the advancement of men socially; it has become acceptable for men to improve themselves physically. Some feminists would argue that the sameness between men and women has always been there and that it is only natural for men to improve themselves. Others could argue that this advancement of the male is marginalizing women. The more improvements men make to their appearance, the more power and knowledge they will gain and the more likely they will be to describe women as the Other rather than a mixed group of people.
Poststructuralist feminists reject the image of women as the Other but also say that “There is nothing essential to the category ‘women’ in post-modern thought: it has no intrinsic qualities (no given content) that can be the subject of feminism” (Beasley, 1999). Feminism and postmodernism can be linked but can also be looked at as two different strands of thought. For example, body modification is seen as a primitive and tribal thing to do to your body when the focus of body modification is on tattoos and piercings. Post-modernists seem to think that there is nothing authentic about body modification in post-modern societies, which for the most part are capitalist consumer Western societies. And that the reasons people do it are either for anti-fashion reasons or a way to make their individuality know and display it to the world.
There are many different ways of looking at feminism, and within body modification, there are conflicting views. Some say that it is a way for men to suppress women as ‘the Other,’ whereas others believe that men finally realize that it is okay to improve their outer appearance. In any case, the role of body modification has become a large part of Western society in the past 20-30 years. Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. With tattoos, piercings, and the media’s quest for the ‘perfect’ body, it is only likely to increase and cause more debate.
- C KLESSE. (1999) Modern Primitivism’: Non-Mainstream Body Modification and Racialized Representation Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 5(2-3): 15-38
- VICTORIA PITTS. (1999) Body Modification, Self-Mutilation and Agency in Media Accounts of a Subculture Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 5(2-3): 291-303
- KATHY DAVIS (2002) ‘A Dubious Equality’: Men, Women and Cosmetic Surgery Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 8(1): 49-65
- MIKE FEATHERSTONE (1999) Body Modification: An Introduction Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 5(2-3): 1-13
- PAUL SWEETMAN (1999) Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 5(2-3): 51-76
- TURNER BRYAN S. (1999) The Possibility of Primitiveness: Towards a Sociology of Body Marks in Cool Societies Body & Society London: Sage. Vol. 5(2-3): 39-50
- BEASLEY, C. (1999) ‘ More on the menu: postmodernist/poststructuralist influences’ What Is Feminism? An Introduction to Feminist Theory. London: Sage. pp81-100.